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Bruno: Paying Teachers For Master's Degrees Is A Bad Idea

2500304333_4b4e390f98Late last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story detailing efforts in some states scale back salary bumps for teachers with master's degrees.

Research has shown - consistently and for decades - that earning a master's degree doesn't seem to make teachers more effective, or even to correlate with effectiveness.

As someone who earned his MA from a respectable university, these findings never terribly surprised me. Much of the time in my program was dedicated to educational theory or history with little direct relevance to the classroom, or to dubious theories of teaching and learning.

Even many of the most practical elements of the program - the time spent planning and reflecting on classroom practice - didn't cover much that we couldn't learn on the job.

But whatever the reason that MA programs don't seem to add much value, it's natural that states and districts might start rethinking paying teachers for having master's degrees.

Or, at least, it seems natural to me. Whenever the MA salary bump comes under attack, though, there are always defenses offered that strike me as puzzling. Read on to see why I'm a master's degree skeptic.

The most common and intuitive defense of the master's degree is probably that we should pay for it because we should value the professional qualifications of our teachers. Why shouldn't we reward teachers who have invested in their own professional development?

The problem with that line of thinking is two-fold. First, it begs the question at hand: namely, does a master's degree really contribute to a teacher's professional development? The research suggests very strongly that it does not, at least for most intents and purposes.

Second, to the extent that we are worried about respecting teachers as professionals, we should probably be reluctant to insist that teachers jump through an apparently-meaningless hoop to earn an extra carrot.

I'm never entirely sure what it means to say that teachers should be "treated like professionals", but presumably if anything it means that our time and effort are valuable and not to be wasted.

 A second, subtler defense of master's degrees is that the research literature defines "effective" too narrowly. MAs may not improve math or reading test scores, but maybe there are other reasons to pay for them.

Maybe, for example, paying for master's degrees is useful for recruitment and retention. Or maybe master's incentives are helpful for expanding the range of professional activities in which teachers can engage.

These stories about the potential value of master's degrees are not impossible. Nor, however, are they clearly supported by any evidence.  

It's not even obvious to me why we should find them plausible. I've met many teachers with MAs, for example, but none of them to my knowledge acquired the degree to qualify for additional responsibilities in the district.

At the same time, we know that master's degrees cost districts moderate amounts of money, are onerous for teachers to acquire, and don't improve student test scores.

Speculation about other, conceivable-but-only-assumed benefits shouldn't stop us from reallocating those salary bumps to across-the-board raises. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)


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The evidence is a little more complex than you suggest. First, it is clear that teachers with a master's degree in math improve outcomes for high school math students. This has always been the case.

More generally, it has not always been true that masters degrees have no association with better outcomes. The reason that the salary bump for masters degrees was originally instituted was because there was strong evidence for improved student outcomes for those taught by teachers with masters degrees. As the salary bump was instituted, masters degree programs proliferated with little attention paid to quality and the association of better student outcomes with being taught by a teacher with a masters degree evaporated.

The real take away should be that quality matters.

recruitment and retention is market forces, supply and demand stuff. how is there no evidence that those things work? a tech person today would have to take a 300% to 500% pay cut to go into teaching. how is that not relevant, nor the impact thereof not obvious?

Anyway, the goal of doing away with rewards for graduate degrees is to make education cheaper, um, 'more efficient'. the alternative is not to distribute the money instead to across the board pay raises (evidence for that btw?) rather to reduce the tax burden for our taxpayers. and maybe we should start with our admins..

I understand what you mean by this post, but I think you are missing a crucial point: teachers with Masters are often certified/endorsed in multiple areas. Teachers with multiple certifications/endorsements are incredibly valuable to a school (particlarly sp ed and Bil/ESL endorsements). See these 2 papers:



Also, you lump all Masters programs together when there is probably a great deal of variation between programs and subject areas.

@Ajay & Ray - It may be that MA program quality has deteriorated or that there's a lot of variation in quality between programs. The recent studies I've seen that have compared different programs haven't found much variation.

@Ray - There may be specific MAs worth paying for, but "math MAs held by HS math teachers" represents a very small fraction of the MAs we're paying for.

@Ajay - It might make sense to pay for multiple credentials, but that's a separate issue.

I agree that given the current situation, it makes no sense to continue the pay bump for a masters. But I would argue that for the long term, it does make sense to look into improving teacher ed generally.

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